Late August provided a vivid reminder of San Antonio’s decade long challenge with air quality and a timely preview of an issue the entire region will be talking about next month: ground level ozone (a.k.a. smog).
The last week of August, San Antonio air monitors registered some of the highest smog readings of the year. In fact, the city’s smog levels were higher than any other city in Texas on August 27.
Put simply, if you have asthma, or other breathing difficulties, you probably had a pretty tough time that week.
Unfortunately, those days weren’t an anomaly. San Antonio has struggled with air quality for years. And ozone (the chemical mixture created when various emissions react with sunlight) has been a particular challenge. Gone are the days when we can smugly (or is that “smogly”?) point at the dirty air in Dallas and Houston. As the conservative blog Breitbart Texas reports: “Summertime means ‘smogtime’ for the Alamo City. With all the measurements over the last three years, San Antonio registers the 2nd worst air quality in the entire state…”
The list of emissions that contribute to ozone levels is fairly simple. Cars, trucks, planes, trains and other transportation that relies on combustion engines contribute a large chunk. So do coal and natural gas fired power plants that provide electricity, industrial facilities, and construction equipment. And according to the latest data, a new contributor to the ozone problem in this region is the oil and natural gas boom in the Eagle Ford Shale. The drilling, processing, transportation and intentional flaring of natural gas have added a new emission challenge for the region to overcome.
All of these emissions add up to a significant health problem for San Antonio, and there’s plenty of data to prove it. Bexar County has the highest rate of child asthma hospitalizations among the state’s most populous counties. Nationally, 17% of children with asthma visited an ER or urgent care center for their asthma in the previous year. That means missed school and, if you’re a parent, it means missed work. In 2011, pediatric asthma hospitalizations cost Bexar County families $18 million.
We need to figure this out. And if cleaning the air, keeping ourselves healthy and saving money aren’t reason enough, we’ll have more motivation come October 1. That’s when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is scheduled to release its long-awaited new health standards for smog. Under review for years, these are the metrics against which the EPA determines the “healthiness” of a region’s air.
It’s widely expected that San Antonio will not meet the new standard for smog. That means regional elected officials and planners will need to develop emission reduction plans that convince Texas and federal regulators we’ve got things under control.
As summer winds down, so too will ozone season. But unlike other autumns, we won’t be able to forget about ozone until next year. In the long run, that’s good news. We’ve had unhealthy air for a long time, and now we will be forced to figure it out. There is no one single magic bullet to solve this and there should be no sacred cows. But if our elected officials commit to a fair, fact-based approach to reducing emissions from all ozone contributors, including emissions from oil and gas production, I’m confident we can get it done.
*Top image: A gas flare at the the Eagle Ford Shale region in Dimmit County near Carrizo Springs. Photo by Mario Bravo.